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The Rev. Yolanda Norton’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
The Truth about God
“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29).
What is the truth about God?  Our 2018 Cathedral theme is truth and this seems like a good place to begin. Eleven years ago our family found ourselves behind a square iron fence at a fairground with perhaps a hundred thousand people outside. The electricity generated by all those souls felt tangible. I remember the beautiful young dancers, old men in bright robes carrying holy objects and prayers chanted so loudly over loudspeakers that you could almost think of nothing else.
We were celebrating Timkat, the Feast of the Epiphany, in Addis Ababa as the special guests of the Abuna, a kind of pope for forty million Ethiopians. I will never forget the feeling I had when the people threw thousands of plastic bottles over the fence to be filled with blessed holy water.
In Greek, the word epiphany means to shine upon or to reveal. We associate this season with three images. First, it reminds us of the light present from the beginning of our world which is Christ. Second, we remember the magi, the three wise men, visitors to the baby Jesus, who some regard as representatives of, “the exotic, the secular, and the scientific world.” The other guiding story for this time tells about the baptism of Jesus when the heavens were torn apart and God’s spirit came to rest on him.
My old teacher Peter Gomes used to say that Epiphany, “is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see.” He told us that what begins as a very private message to Mary and Joseph comes to be shared with, “an ever-expanding audience of witnesses.” He compares it to the ripples formed when you drop a pebble into a smooth pond (until the entire surface is witness to the initial movement of that one stone).
That Ethiopian day in the midst of the largest crowd I had ever seen we lost our five-year-old daughter. So much was happening, I took a photograph, and in a heart stopping instant she was gone. Then we noticed all the television cameras moving to a place where there was a commotion. There was our daughter sitting on the Abuna’s lap as he presided from his throne over the largest religious ritual I will ever see.
My wife picked her up and the two of them were on every television station and the front page of every newspaper. Wherever we went in Ethiopia after that people recognized them and gave them special gifts. This event led to an amazing sense of connection to others.
We long to be known, and during that time we were. It was as if the special admiration that we have for our own children, the way they seem so beautiful to us, was suddenly shared by a whole country of people. For those weeks it felt like all of humanity was our family.
All of us know about the opposite experience too, when instead of a person we become “traffic” to others, that is an inconveniently placed object for them. We also know what it feels like to be isolated and lonely. This week I read an article sent to me by a friend called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
The argument may be familiar to you already. It holds that the smartphones, which didn’t even exist when we went to Ethiopia, have disrupted a whole generation’s experience of childhood. They are guinea pigs measuring the effects of colossal social changes. According to the author today’s young people are far less likely to use drugs and alcohol, to have sex or even to go out with their friends. They spend about the same amount of time doing homework as earlier generations.
The difference is that young people today spend a massive amount of time on smartphones and social media. This leads to loneliness, a feeling of being left out, depression and suicide. The author writes that girls’ depressive symptoms have increased by fifty percent. Three times as many 12 to 14 year old girls kill themselves today than did in 2007. She also writes that those who attend religious services have a much lower risk for depression.
This is a time when we really need God to be revealed to our children, and to us. Yet sometimes it seems as if even devout Christians are strangely uninterested in coming to know God. Many people seem satisfied to say simply that “God is love” without caring much about the details, without learning what the Bible and tradition teaches about God’s nature.
This puzzles me. Imagine if we were having a conversation and I told you that I love my wife. What if you asked where she grew up and I said, “I don’t know.” You might say, “Well what kind of music does she listen to?“ or “what does she look like?” “is she shy or gregarious?” If I told you that I didn’t know, you’d probably think there was something seriously wrong with our relationship. One of the most upsetting realizations we can have about someone we love is that they do not really know us.
Loving someone means trying to learn about that person. We find out about God through prayer and worship, in studying scripture and the tradition, by talking to each other and by trying to follow God’s teaching in how we live (by the way this includes everything from how we drive to how we talk about other people).
In baptism we promise to learn more about God and to help our children to do the same. In baptism we renew a relationship that God first began at creation. In baptism we say, “I belong no longer to myself, to my parents, my work, to the Internet or the world; I belong to God.”
Some of you may know that I am on a quest to understand God through the eyes of the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Last year I read 2,000 pages of Church Dogmatics his 9,000 page systematic theology. He asserts that we can know something about God because God cares enough about us to show himself in the Bible, in preaching and the person of Jesus himself. For Barth, this God of the scriptures is above all the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the Epiphany story of Jesus’ baptism shows us each aspect of who God is.
Trinity means that we experience God as three persons who have one being or essence. In an analogous way you might experience me as a husband on a double date, as a parent coaching rugby, or as a priest here at Grace Cathedral. You will see a different aspect of me in each of those settings but the being behind all of those experiences, that is me, is the same.
Barth points out that there is within us a kind of enmity toward God. We are kind of like frenemies (friend-enemies) with God. This isn’t just about us as individuals. We learn how to be with God in large part from our culture, which in Western Europe and North America has begun to bend further away from God.
In a recent article the actor Russell Brand who plays the rock star in the old movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall writes about what he is learning in overcoming his addiction to drugs. In a 12-step program Brand recognized his powerlessness over drugs and turned his life over to God, the only one who could save him. It made him realize that all of us live by an unconscious myth that in his words, “we can make ourselves feel better with external stuff, be it behavior or chemicals.”
With our lives we may often miss the mark but Jesus shows that we do not have to be lost in our misplaced efforts to find security and love by putting ourselves above others.
Over time this Spirit changes us so that gratitude is no longer just the way we think or even behave. Gratitude becomes our very essence. For Barth, in the end this is all about joy. God’s joy leads to the creation of the world. In this same joy God invites us into the Divine life and through the Spirit gives us the ability to say “yes” to God with our whole being. It was this joy that I sensed on that day as the Ethiopians threw their water bottles over the fence.
Brothers and sisters welcome to the Year of Truth at Grace Cathedral. We all long to know and to be known. Like those exotic, secular and scientific Magi let us follow the star of wisdom and come to know the One we love. In the face of all that threatens this generation let the light of Epiphany, the person of Jesus become ever clearer to us. As the ripples of the waters at Jesus’ baptism reach the shores of our time let us find our own way to say, “I belong to God.” Imagine the truth about God we are about to discover.
 Our Cathedral’s 2018 theme is truth. I hope that we will learn new truth about our own lives, and our relation to others. We will explore the truth in journalism, ethics, politics, the economy, sociology, the natural and biological sciences and technology. This week our federal government opened up the process to begin selling offshore oil drilling leases. In our time we need to especially open our eyes to the truth about nature and our planet. Associated Press, “Alaska May Open Up Again for Oil Leasing, but Risks Linger,” The New York Times, 5 January 2018.
 Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 31.
 Ibid., 30-6.
 Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017. David Smith sent the article. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
 “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.” Ibid.
 This reminds me of the sense of misplaced attention in the billboards that say that we spend more time reading billboards than planning for our retirement.
 Ethan Renoe, “The Tragedy of Dumbing Down Christianity,” Relevant, 22 December 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/article/the-tragedy-of-dumbing-down-christianity/
 Paraphrase of Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 33.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clarke, 1936), 88-120.
 Ibid., 444ff.
 Jesse Carey, “The Second Coming of Russell Brand,” Relevant, 8 October 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/feature/the-second-coming-of-russell-brand/
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.T. Thomposon, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clarke, 1956) 371
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 669.
 Ibid., 647.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
The Rev. Mary Carter Greene’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
The Grammar of Violence and the Way of Light
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances… Do not quench the Spirit…” (1 Thess. 5).
Who we really are depends a great deal on what we believe about the world. The theologian David Bentley Hart writes that today we have a choice between two narratives.
On the one hand there is the story that in his words, “finds the grammar of violence inscribed upon every foundation stone of every institution and hidden within the syntax of every rhetoric.” If you are thinking of Nietzsche or Foucault you are on the right track. In this dark picture of things, might makes right and everyone always acts selfishly to get away with as much as possible regardless of what might be best for others.
This is the kind of cynicism that justifies delaying approvals for Supreme Court nominees until your party has another chance to get into power. It is the cynicism that leads to endorsing a candidate just because he might support your policies even when he has done horrifying things. It justifies lying about your enemies and the belief that since we cannot really get to the bottom of things we can just choose to believe what is most convenient for us. This attitude funds the pessimism, scapegoating and blame that has become so much more obvious to us this year. It may be the reason some powerful people are calling for the suppression of ongoing FBI investigations.
Sometimes there seems to be no break in the extent of the darkness. Hart contrasts this with the idea that, “within history a way of reconciliation has been opened up that leads beyond, and ultimately overcomes, all violence.” For me this way beyond violence is the way of the light – the way of Christ.
If you really believe in this light it can even lead you to heroic acts. Let me change the image from an ordinary exchange at a Christmas party to a congressional hearing. The question is still the same, “Who are you?” But it has a different meaning in this setting.
In October 1991 Anita Hill testified at confirmation hearings about Clarence Thomas who went on to become a justice on the Supreme Court. She described in vivid terms the unrelenting sexual harassment she experienced from him and its terrible effects on her life. In one video frame of the testimony you can see her alone before seven white men in black suits. It took incredible courage to face Congress and to speak a difficult truth in the face of immense pressure for her to suppress what happened.
Not long after those days my wife Heidi taught a class together with Anita Hill and we became friends. In fact Anita was the first person who predicted Heidi was pregnant with our firstborn child. But this is not what made her a prophet. Her power as a prophet came from believing that there is more to our life than darkness. Even when she seemed totally alone Anita trusted in the light. We still believe you Anita!
I really want you to imagine what it would feel like to sit in her chair on that day. You face your accusers. They say, “who are you?” And you know that any response you give will be held against you. That is how this Gospel depicts the situation of John the Baptist when the religious leaders from Jerusalem seek him out in the desert.
Even the language John uses, the words “witness,” “confess,” “testimony,” “deny,” come from the courtroom. Although the Greek word erōtaō is translated in our text as “ask,” a better rendition would be “to interrogate.” This is the same word used for the high priest’s interrogation of Jesus before his crucifixion (Jn. 19:19).
For me there is a huge difference between a genuine seeker asking a friendly question at that holiday party, (“Hey, by the way, are you the Messiah?”) and the men John faced. Those religious leaders repeatedly asked him who he was, because they were not satisfied by his answers. “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the prophet?” They even asked him to sympathize with their need to provide their bosses with an answer. “What do you say about yourself” (Jn. 1) they insist.
For us baptism is the sign of faith and repentance. It marks a new participation in the realm of God. For those leaders it seems like a terribly subversive act aimed at overthrowing the social order. Finally, John bravely and simply quotes the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.” And in what might even sound ominous John seems to say something like, “You are right to be worried. If you think that I’m dangerous, among you stands someone you do not know but who is even more threatening than me.”
This does not lead me to blame someone else for Jesus’ death. Instead I see that I am like those religious leaders. I too am blocking my own way to God. Although the Word creates the world so beautifully in and through himself, we do not experience that perfection first. While the world’s goodness is the most original thing, everyone steps into a history that is already broken. In Martin Heidegger’s language everything is “always already” in the darkness of conflict.
The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that there is something desperate about our drive for “self-preservation.” It leads us to assert our independence so forcefully that we end up resisting God (and carrying the whole world like a kind of Atlas). He says, “Therefore finally and at the deepest level [the human being] will always be an enemy of grace and a hater and denier of his [or her] real neediness.”
The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) dedicated his life to understanding what belief means. In his early days he hoped to establish a philosophical superstructure that would support all mathematical reasoning. After groundbreaking work in this field he abandoned this project.
Wittgenstein realized that the way philosophers understand language was one of only many different possibilities. What seemed to be genuine philosophical problems turned out to be misunderstandings of how language really works. He felt strongly that faith could not be reduced to some form of certainty.
His biographer writes, “Wittgenstein did not wish to see God or to find reasons for His existence. He thought that if he could overcome himself – if a day came when his whole nature ‘bowed down in humble resignation in the dust’ – then God would, as it were, come to him; he would then be saved.”
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) said that original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Although the situation may seem hopeless, at the heart of John’s Gospel lies a faith that belief is not about accepting a set of propositions about reality. It is about coming into a new relation with Jesus that allows us to find our way back to the light. Trusting Jesus makes it possible to overcome this fatal part of our nature, to be reunited with the beauty of the universe’s creator.
As a cathedral our theme this year has been “the Gift.” I hoped for us to enter more deeply into the realm beyond commerce and marketing. I wanted us to move beyond those dominant places where everything has to be earned and advertised. We tried an experiment together. We wondered if we really began to experience our existence as a gift how would that change our lives? What would happen if we stopped always asserting ourselves and opened our hearts to what we are receiving?
The monk Thomas Merton writes that the begging bowl of the Buddha, “represents… openness to the gifts of all beings as an expression of the interdependence of all things.” I hope that we have become more conscious of that interdependence and of the generosity of God.
Who are you? You are a child of God who sees beyond the grammar of violence to recognize the light that shines in the darkness. You are the prophet, like John the Baptist or Anita Hill, nurturing a vision of what is right that gives you strength as enemies confront you. You are the one who knows that faith cannot be reduced to false certainty. You receive the gifts of God. You walk in the light of our brother Jesus.
So “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5).
 I keep thinking about this story about a woman who was afraid of this question that lies at the heart of so many of our social interactions. Pella, the only female character in Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding, dropped out of Yale to marry a much older San Francisco architect. Harbach writes, “It was confusing to have leaped precociously ahead of her high-achieving, economically privileged peers by doing precisely what her low-achieving, economically unprivileged peers tended to do: getting married, staying home, keeping house. She had gotten so far ahead of the curve that the curve became a circle and now she was way behind.” The questions she feared most [were]: Who are you? What do you do? Well, what do you want to do?” Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding: A Novel (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011) 84-87.
 David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s, 2003) 2.
 Anita Hill Testimony, CNN, 11 October 1991. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWD1Cce2AUo
 D. Mark Davis, “Witness Under Fire,” Left Behind and Loving It (December 2017). http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 371, 136.
 For Wittgenstein language is not just representation. He distinguished between meaning as representation and meaning as use. There are many different language games including: joking, translating, thanking. There is more than to human experience than a view of language as just a kind of model of the world.
 Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (NY: Penguin, 1991) 410.
 Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Poetry (NY: Vintage, 1979) 23-4.
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mk. 13).
Let me tell you what it felt like when I woke up… Not long after the AIDS Quilt went up this fall here in the Cathedral I participated in Tuesday night Yoga. When you are doing balance poses it helps to focus your attention on a distant point. That evening I gazed at the names of the people on the quilts.
Most of the people I knew who died of this disease back when I was in my twenties seemed a lot older than me. But that night for the first time I saw them from the perspective of my older self. Arthur died at the age of 33, Jerry at 41, Michael 37. And the list goes on Bob, Jack, Rick, Bill, Art, David, Ken, James, Margaret, and Joseph. So many didn’t even have the chance to experience the world as a forty year old, or to have a fiftieth birthday.
These thoughts passed through my consciousness like a sparrow entering a high church window and then flying out again. At the end of yoga we all lie down on our back in the most comfortable pose of all Shavasana (sometimes known as corpse pose). The full weight of this hit me as I was lying there. And I started weeping. I had forgotten what it felt like to cry like this – the tears flowed down my face through my hair into my ears.
On Friday night Mike Smith, one of the co-founders of the AIDS Quilt, said that he had kept his feelings in a black box within a box, within another box. On that night during shavasana it felt like I was opening the boxes again. I woke up after having been asleep for a long time.
In 1992 I served at St. John the Evangelist, a church (on Bowdoin Street) known for blessing the relationships of gay and lesbian people and for our ministry to homeless people in Boston. My first pastoral visits were with young people who were dying of AIDS. They were full of creativity and love. Now when I talk to younger people about that time I find it nearly impossible to convey the terror and depth of this tragedy.
Thousands of young people were rejected by their own communities, churches and the families who should have taken care of them. Many had nowhere to go so they came to our church. We cared for them while they were sick. And when they died we treated their memory and bodies with respect. I have vivid memories of our all night vigils in the soft candlelight of the small chapel before their funeral mass the next day.
I remember traveling far away from the subway line to a decrepit Victorian house in Dorchester to visit John a monk who was dying. He had Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS). His shoulders and kind face seemed so hollowed out. I would not have been able to do this with most people but something about his spirit invited me to ask this priest for his advice about how to give pastoral care. A few weeks later I was washing dishes in the soup kitchen and broke down when I heard that this gentle teacher of mine had died.
After moving to a California suburb in 2001, I buried a lot of these memories. In hospitals I saw mostly older people. The times changed too as treatments improved and HIV Positive people were less stigmatized by society. In a sense I fell asleep.
Today on what we call the First Sunday of Advent we celebrate the first day of the church’s new year. We enter a season of preparation that has almost nothing to do with the commercial preparations for Christmas that we see and hear around us. As people following the way of Jesus how should we be? What should we do? I want to give you a long answer and a short suggestion.
Jesus describes the world as a vast household. Its owner goes on a journey and leaves us, his slaves, in charge “each with his work and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” “You do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn… And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mk. 13).
The Hawaiian word for this is maka ala. It means literally with eyes open, keep alert. Keep awake to the generosity of God. Keep awake to the humanity of others.
You can see the spirit of Jesus’ words in the expression “get woke” or “stay woke.” It arose out of African American activist communities. With regard to what happened after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson Missouri “Stay woke” might mean, “stay conscious of the apparatus of white supremacy, don’t automatically accept the official explanation of police violence, stay safe.
Our World AIDS Day speakers on Friday spoke especially movingly about what it means to wake up. Gregg Cassin has survived with HIV for over thirty years. In his twenties when Gregg was struggling over whether he should come out as a gay man, his first boyfriend spoke to him about Jesus.
The boyfriend said that society might despise you. Your family, the government and the church might too. But Jesus does not belong to an institution. Jesus says I am the truth and the life. This is about truth. It is about life, and you have to speak this truth.
Gregg describes his experiences at 1980’s AIDS support groups. Before he discovered them he had a terrible struggle and couldn’t help but associate the disease with immorality. He said, “I felt dirty.” At the meetings each person got up and told his story. They did this with such vulnerability and courage, that each time Gregg would think, “I love this man!” At the end of the meeting he looked around the room and a simple thought occurred to him. These men are innocent. These men are innocent and I am too. This extraordinarily gentle and thoughtful man in the most Christ-like way has dedicated his life to serving others.
Vince Cristosotomo told another story about bringing the AIDS Quilt to Guam and being the first Chamorro person there to speak openly about being gay and HIV positive. Not long after arriving he met a woman. She told him about her brother who had been abandoned by the family and died alone of AIDS in New York City.
It turned out that this had been James Torrey the aerobics instructor Vince had lost touch with years before. It seemed like a miracle but after going through the panels of the quilt they found Vince’s.
The authorities had given Vince a long list of banned topics but the last person to talk to him before going onstage was his aunty. She looked him in the eye and said that no matter what happened she would always protect him. Then she gave him $20 for an ice cream cone. After the speech a man embraced Vince and just wept without letting him go. It was the father who had abandoned James. He cried, “James was such a good boy. I’m so sorry for what I have done!”
Three weeks ago the actor Peter Coyote was our forum guest. In his book he writes about the idea of becoming what he calls “a life actor.” This is someone who consciously creates the role one plays in everyday life. It requires skill and imagination to break out of the implicit rules that constrain us.
Our homework this week is to wake up and to let go of the role we unconsciously play every day, the role of “Ego.” This is that part of us that is infinitely eager to assert itself, to get ahead. Strangely enough it is also that part of us which is most easily offended by the perceived slights of others.
In its place, try on the role of the compassionate Jesus. For each of us this is going to mean something different. For some of you it may involve being a lot more assertive. In that case this is your chance to speak a difficult truth, to stand up for someone who is being dismissed, perhaps to reach beyond your privilege to come closer to reality.
For others this means letting go of always having to be right, of the myth that our life could be perfect or the world could be fair. It might mean being kind to someone who has treated you badly or simply just letting someone else go ahead of you in traffic. Try listening more and talking less. Do something nice for someone who you are fairly sure is rotten inside. Be faithful in a way that only God knows about. Be less defensive.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said that, “the church is created each time we gather around Jesus in the sacraments and tend to the hopes and hurts of people.” I believe this. Thank you. Thank you for being the church that responded so heroically to the AIDS crisis and thank you for being the church we are creating right now. Thank you for all the ways you teach me to be awake. Thank you for constantly showing me the generosity of God and the humanity of all God’s children.
 Tuesday 10 October 2017.
 Stories by Mike Smith, Gregg Cassin and Vince Crisostomo at “World AIDS Day: Stories and Song,” Grace Cathedral, Friday 1 December 2017.
 Charles Pulliam-Moore, “How ‘woke’ went from black activist watchword to teen internet slang,” Splinter, 8 January 2016. https://splinternews.com/how-woke-went-from-black-activist-watchword-to-teen-int-1793853989
 “Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him”” (Jn. 6:10).
 Peter Coyote, Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998) 33. In Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and Theater he writes that every interpersonal interaction involves the communication of status. I don’t know that I believe this, but I do think another helpful exercise is to allow yourself to assume a different level of status in an interaction with another person this week. Johnstone writes that a person who plays high status implicitly sends the message, “Don’t come near me, I bite.” A person playing low status says, “Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.” Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theater (NY: Routledge, 2015 (1981)) 43.
 I have no official source for this. Jeremy Clark-King told me this quote in November 2017.
The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
The Rev. Jude Harmon’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.